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N.C. officials hope to adopt latest construction safety codes as anniversary of massive blaze nears

Changes would increase safety at construction sites like the South Park site that burned in 2023


Charlotte Fire Department/Twitter

By Gavin Off
The Charlotte Observer

RALEIGH, N.C. — As the one-year anniversary of the fatal SouthPark construction site fire nears, so does a potential toughening of North Carolina’s safety codes, which officials hope will prevent similar tragedies.

On May 18 last year, flames erupted from the diesel engine of a trailer carrying spray-foam insulation on the bottom floor of a 239-unit luxury apartment building under construction.

Within minutes, they climbed walls, spread across floors and up the building’s stairwell and elevator shafts to the sixth floor, where two workers who were unable to escape died.

[RELATED: Watch: N.C. firefighters rescue crane operator trapped above massive 5-alarm fire]

Now the state Fire Marshal’s Office is seeking to adopt most of the latest National Fire Protection Association standards for safeguarding construction. The changes would increase fire safety measures at multi-story wood buildings during construction, like those that burned in Charlotte last year and in Raleigh in 2017.

The state’s Building Code Council approved the change in March. And the state’s Rules Review Commission, the legislature-linked agency that reviews rules adopted by state agencies, will look them over later this month.

“We are a reactive society in the fire service,” said chief state fire marshal Brian Taylor, who supports the stiffer rules. “It’s after an unfortunate incident like this, where two lives were lost, that we go and look at what we could improve, and we go and make that change.”

The blaze, one of the most destructive in Charlotte’s history, started when the diesel motor caught fire, according to a N.C. Department of Labor investigative report. That motor was enclosed in a trailer that contained flammable spray-foam insulation.

A recognized fire risk

Unlike previous editions, the 2022 NFPA standards include a chapter specifically for improving safety at construction sites involving large wood-framed structures.

These buildings are at greatest risk for fires during construction, when combustible materials are often on-site and sprinklers are not installed, according to the NFPA.

The risk increases when the buildings are what some in the industry call “toothpick towers,” multi-story structures made of lightweight wood, such as two-by-fours and plywood-like sheets.

“You’re not talking about heavy timber of solid oak,” said Glenn Corbett, an associate professor of fire science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

[RELATED: ‘Murph, it’s time to climb': N.C. captain describes rescue of crane operator]

The SouthPark building, located on Liberty Row Drive, was podium, or pedestal, construction. The bottom story was made of noncombustible material like concrete and steel while the upper floors were wooden.

Podium-style structures are increasingly common in Mecklenburg County and across the U.S. About a dozen of the apartment buildings were under construction in Mecklenburg County when the SouthPark fire erupted, according to a county spokesperson.

Fires have destroyed a number of massive wooden buildings under construction in recent years, from SouthPark and Raleigh in North Carolina to Prescott, Ariz ., to Sacramento, Calif.

The best way to make these construction sites safe is to limit their size, which the new code does not do, Corbett said.

“The problem is you’re trying to oversee King Kong under chains,” said Corbett of the new fire standards. “And Kind Kong is all the wood…. How do we make something safe that is very inherently unsafe?”

Newer codes

The updated National Fire Protection Association standards require several safety measures not now required here while building large wood-framed structures, said Charlie Johnson, chief fire code consultant for the N.C. Office of State Fire Marshal.

One calls for an on-site fire prevention program manager to conduct and record daily safety inspections, which can be shared with local building and fire department officials.

[RELATED: ‘We had several maydays': N.C. firefighters trapped during rescues at blaze]

According to the Charlotte Fire Department investigation following the blaze, the SouthPark building didn’t have an active standpipe, or water connection stretching the height of the building.

The inspections might not have prevented the spray-foam trailer from igniting, but they might have found deficiencies with the building’s standpipe and number of exits, said Robin Zevotek, principal engineer for the NFPA.

Construction workers Demonte Tyree Sherrill and Reuben Holmes were installing windows and doors on the sixth floor of the construction site, fitted with just one exit, when the fire broke out.

Holmes called his boss, Keith Suggs, around 9 a.m. The men were trapped because they were unable to reach the one exit, he said.

“Whoever thought it was a good idea for a building the size of a football field with a toothpick tower to have one single exit,” said Corbett, the John Jay College fire science expert,

“That’s insanity.”

Last November, the N.C. Department of Labor reported it found several violations at the SouthPark fire site.

Inspectors found the building’s exits weren’t arranged to provide an easy way out for workers, for instance. Sherrill and Holmes were more than 460 feet from the only stairwell, one citation read.

Daily inspections may have helped

Johnson, the state Department of Insurance official, credited Mecklenburg County Fire Marshal Ted Panagiotopoulos and Patrick Granson, director of code enforcement for the county, for requesting the change.

Panagiotopoulos reached out to the state’s Fire Code Revision Committee last May, asking that it investigate updating North Carolina’s codes, Johnson said.

“Had Ted not reached out and said, ‘Let’s look at that… I don’t know if that was an effort we would have undertaken,” Johnson said.

A fire prevention program manager, who would be hired by the property owner, would have the authority to review and change the site’s safety plan, Zevotek said of the stricter NFPA rules. Fire prevention programs must be submitted to the local fire department, under the rules.

The fire-prevention programs would spell out the number and locations of the building’s exits, identify combustible materials, lay out how workers would warn each other if a fire breaks out and ways to control a fire.

These plans are vitally important to reacting quickly, said Ray O’Brocki, director of fire service relations for the American Wood Council and administrator of the Construction Fire Safety Coalition, which aims to reduce the number and severity of fires during construction.

“You have to know what you’re going to do before something happens, because you’re not going to have time when something actually happens,” O’Brocki said. “What material is it? How does it burn? Can we put it out with water? And if you can’t put it out with water, what can you put it out with?”

Delaying one key requirement

If approved by the rules review commission, the North Carolina code wouldn’t match the NFPA’s standards exactly.

The state’s Building Code Council , a 17-member board that amends North Carolina’s building codes, pushed back the time contractors would have to submit a site’s fire prevention program. Rather than requiring that contractors submit the plan prior to a construction permit being issued, the council changed the wording to allow contractors to submit the plan prior to breaking ground.

The additional time would give on-site safety officials more time to better understand how construction will unfold and what safety measures need to be in place, Zevotek said.

But the delay, which Johnson does not favor, could come at a price, he said.

Fire safety experts said tying the plan’s submission to a building permit would help ensure compliance.

“If you hold the building permit over their head, they’ll give you everything,” said O’Brocki, the American Wood Council official. “Once they get a building permit and put shovels in the dirt, it gets very hard to get anything out of them. That’s the unfortunate thing for Charlotte.”

Johnson expects the Rules Review Commission to okay the change in fire codes April 30 when commissioners next meet, he said, noting he’s now aware of any opposition.

Taylor, the state fire marshal, agreed.

“I don’t recall during my time in Raleigh , and I have 30 years in the fire service, that something like this has been looked at so favorably,” Taylor said.

If approved, the stricter rules would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2025 .

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